Trump and the future of Saudi leadership

Trump and the future of Saudi leadership
Analysis: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will not be ousted while he enjoys Trump's patronage, says Maysam Behravesh
4 min read
05 December, 2018
MBS knows he's on solid ground while he remains a US weapons customer [AFP]

Undoubtedly, the early October murder of Jamal Khashoggi has tarnished Saudi Arabia's global image and strained its traditional alliances with Western nations.

On 22 November, Denmark and Finland joined other European states, including Germany and the Netherlands, in suspending weapons exports to Riyadh. While some of these arms suppliers have cited grave concerns over the worsening humanitarian crisis in Yemen as a consequence of the Saudi-led offensive, the Khashoggi scandal no doubt contributed to their decision.

The United States, dwarfing other exporters, has been conspicuous by its absence from the fold despite increasing calls from members of Congress for an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia.   

Yet, the more important repercussions are perhaps unfolding at home.

The affair served to weaken the position of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) in the royal court, reinvigorating face-saving efforts to replace him with a more stabilising and legitimate figure in line to the throne.

These efforts were gaining momentum until US President Donald Trump threw his weight behind MbS with a landmark statement of almost unqualified support for the Saudi leadership, shortly after the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that MbS had ordered the assassination of Khashoggi in Istanbul.

"In any case," said Trump, "our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region."    

Consolidating bin Salman's rule and guaranteeing his succession to the Saudi kingship after his father King Salman's death was perhaps the most significant strategic implication of the "extraordinary" Trump statement.

MbS opponents within the royal court argue, among other things, that his reckless policies have undermined the historic pillars of the Saudi state

One day earlier, on 19 November, Reuters reported in an exclusive scoop that dozens of members of the Saudi royal family had been trying to block Mohammed bin Salman's ascension to the throne, instead setting their eyes on King Salman's 76-year-old full brother, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz.

A critic of the young crown prince and his unconventional policies, bin Abdulaziz was one of the three people on the 34-member Allegiance Council - the state body in charge of deciding Saudi Arabia's future king - who opposed his nephew's succession to the leadership. His abrupt return home after a two-and-a-half month stint in London had sparked speculation about the possible replacement of MbS, the kingdom's de facto ruler, in the wake of the Khashoggi fallout.

MbS opponents within the royal court argue, among other things, that his reckless policies have undermined the historic pillars of the Saudi state - "the family, the clerics, the tribes and the merchant families" - according to the Reuters report.      

With President Trump's unequivocal expression of support for Mohammed bin Salman, growing hopes for a change in the Saudi leadership are fading away.                  

Riyadh has been on the defensive since the Khashoggi murder developed into a political crisis of international proportions. Now this seems to be changing, as Saudis are going on the offensive.

One day after the White House statement, Saudi foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir dismissed the Reuters report as "ridiculous", stressing the kingdom was "unified" and "committed" to its current and future leadership. He also told the BBC that calls for the removal of MbS from power were a "red line".

"In Saudi Arabia our leadership is a red line. The custodian of the two holy mosques [King Salman] and the Crown Prince [Mohammed bin Salman] are a red line," al-Jubeir said.

This might serve short-term US interests as determined by President Trump's transactional approach to international relations

There is a growing consensus among Middle East observers and Western intelligence agencies alike that bin Salman's policies since his selection as Saudi Arabia's crown prince in June 2017 have proven destabilising for the region and beyond. They include the diplomatic and trade blockade of Qatar, holding the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri hostage, the ongoing military campaign in Yemen, and uncompromising opposition to Iran - despite repeated overtures by the Rouhani government for a rapprochement.

The Trump administration's backing for the current Saudi leadership amid global outcry over its role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and in the name of "America First" will probably reassure MbS to stay the course and pursue his heavy-handed methods both at home and abroad with impunity, as long as the US profiting from bilateral trade ties is guaranteed. 

This might serve short-term US interests as determined by President Trump's transactional approach to international relations. However, it will likely come at a huge strategic cost for Washington at a time when the US administration is endeavouring to change the Islamic Republic's behaviour through a "maximum pressure" policy - particularly if the US is lured by its Middle Eastern allies into an all-out war with Iran.      

Maysam Behravesh is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Lund University in Sweden. Follow him on Twitter: @behmash.